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21 December 2012

In praise of solitude


THERE are not many guests on Desert Island Discs (Radio 4, Sunday) who eagerly embrace the prospect of being stranded alone in the middle of the South Pacific; but Sister Wendy Beckett, much of whose life is spent in solitude, was no ordinary guest. Solitude, for her, is "the greatest imaginable bliss"; and though, over a busy Christmas, we might at times have sympathy with this position, I doubt we would go so far as to spend Christmas morning in a caravan praying for seven hours.

But then again, to Sister Wendy every activity entails an element of prayer. "This is prayer," she declared, to the evident delight and dismay of Kirsty Young, most of whose guests are in the studio not to pray, but to plug a project. "It's not the kind of prayer I would have chosen," she added, and Young chuckled.

Indeed, the two women seemed to be hitting it off famously, until a peculiar moment when, in answer to one of Young's untargeted digs about the contemplative life, Sister Wendy slipped in an almost unconscious "sweetheart" among the genial words. She may be holy, but she is certainly no fool, and one cannot but wonder whether the condescension was intended.

It may have been simply the editing, but was there not a distinct lack of that affectionate, indulgent laughter from our host in the latter part of the interview?

Sister Wendy is, of course, a mistress in the art of the put-down; her best on this appearance was to say, of contemporary Brit artists: "I'm so pleased these young people are in regular employment." Behind her prolific modesty, there is a keen awareness of her own abilities: she made sure that we knew of her congratulatory First from Oxford, and the fact that her marks were as good as those of Harold Wilson (who was said to have had the best ever results in History at Oxford).

None of which makes her any less likeable: in fact, it makes her a more reliable witness to, and credible commentator on, the often very worldly art that she encounters. The ego may not be a good companion while communing with God, but it is an essential one when dealing with the culture of television.

It would require a mortification of the flesh far more intense than Sister Wendy's to spend Christmas listening to the Revd J. M. Gates's seasonal offerings. Chosen as part of the Revd Richard Coles's An Alternative Christmas (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), these included tracks such as "Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?" and "Did You Spend Christmas in Jail?", and were delivered to his Georgia kinsfolk over the airwaves in the 1920s.

Coles is clearly not a fan of the Christmas standards, and compares singing "O come all ye faithful" as a priest to the days when, as a pop star, he would mouth the band's favourites to dwindling audiences.

Unlike many Christmas musical curios, this was not sprinkled with liberal amounts of cheese, but rather included items too hard-hitting to make it into the mainstream. There was "There Is No Sanity Claus II", a late-'60s rant against the arms trade, for instance; and a Miles Davis number, "Blue Christmas" - a diatribe against commercialism, which sat incongruously as the final track on a compilation album of Christmas music with the deceptively innocent title Jingle Bell Jazz.


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